Book Review: The Wretched of The Earth by Frantz Fanon
Book: The Wretched of the Earth.
Author: Frantz Fanon
Publisher: New York: Grove Press, 1963
Pages: 317 Pages
Frantz Fanon’s radical text ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ is counted as one of the most influential literatures on psychoanalysis of colonialism, colonial violence and counter-violence of the colonized. He presents a striking account of the wretchedness that the colonial situation produced for the Algerians under the French. This text was first published in 1961, around the time when the Algeria became independent in 1962 after seven years of war. Deeply involved in the Algerian struggle, Fanon presented his reflections and aspirations in this revolutionary text.
Fanon presents a study of the process of decolonization from the psychological perspective of the native. He says, “Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men. But this creation owes nothing of its legitimacy to any supernatural power; the “thing” which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself.” [36-37] He explains how the murderous brutality of the colonizer in the colonial dynamic dehumanizes the native and reduces the native into a ‘thing’, thereby snatching his ‘humanity’ away.
Throughout the text, Fanon makes an attempt to explain the genesis of violence of the native and trace it back to the incessant and ruthless violence of the settler on the native. In context of the Algerian armed struggle, he highlights how the violence of the Algerian is essentially the direct product of the colonial situation produced by the French. In his preface to the book, Jean-Paul Sartre writes, “You said they understand nothing but violence? Of course; first, the only violence is the settler’s; but soon they will make it their own; that is to say, the same violence is thrown back upon us as when our reflection comes forward to meet us when we go toward a mirror.” 
Explaining the cathartic effect of violence, Fanon writes, “At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect”.  The everydayness of the humiliation and torture causes the colonized to lose their sense of dignity and self-respect. The attempt of the colonizer is to deprive the colonized of his sense of self, of his humanity and reduce him to an animal-like existence. The logic of the colonial power is to break the resistance by inflicting militarized violence over generations of the native. History shows that this strategy has most often failed. The moment the native recognizes the violation of his self, his struggle for dignity begins. With the colonizer repressing his peaceful protests and demands, the colonized move towards path of armed struggle. For Fanon, decolonization, in real sense happens only when what is placed at the last comes to be placed at first. This, according to him, can only happen by way of a violent struggle between the two protagonists – the settler and the native.
Explaining the sociological realities of a conflict-ridden territory, he talks about intersectionality of class and race relations in context of European colonialization of Africa. He explains how the colonial machinery creates a cultural construct of the native as the ‘other’ who is the quintessence of evil. According to Fanon, European humanism and values of Enlightenment are nothing but a paradox as the principle of equality of all men remains restricted to white European men. Any ‘other’ – blacks and Arabs in context of the book – are painted as barbaric and devoid of values and thus, underserving of equal treatment and respect. He explains that the evolution of cultural nationalism/nationalisms of the Arabs and the Negros is a response to the European erasure of the Negro and Arab cultures, further arguing that the struggle for liberation is in its essence a cultural phenomenon.
Fanon presents a study of the economic and social situations of different classes in Algeria – workers, bourgeoisie, countryside peasants, lumpenproletariat etc. – explaining how the conflicts and contradictions between these classes are exploited by the colonial power to fracture the struggle and solidarity of the colonized.
Towards the end, Fanon gives a series of cases of mental disorders resulting from the colonial situation and war for liberation. The everydayness of violence resulted in Algerians – militants and civilians – suffering from a number of disorders including insomnia, schizophrenia, insecurity, anxiety, noise phobia etc. In one case, a man developed insomnia because he used to hear screams, which prevented him from sleeping. While a considerable number of people complained of sleepless nights, those who slept dreamt of bloodbaths. In one case militant who killed a French woman would dream of this woman asking for his blood as he saw his room get drenched with his blood.
For Fanon, the way ahead for post-colonial, independent states in Africa is for the native intellectuals and native population to evolve a nuanced model of development suited to the cultural, economic and social realities of the African continent and its populations. Warning that an imitation of the European model is bound to be disastrous, he urges Algerians to be accepting and assertive of their originality.
Fanon wrote ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ at the time when the world was fraught with revolutionary changes and the process of decolonization was on full swing. New social movements with revolutionary potential were being conceived. These new social movements proposed more nuanced programs for emancipation deviating from the age-old mantra of class struggle adhered to by Marxists all over the world. Struggles based on cultural and religious identities were taking shape. The principles, theory and literature guiding these political programs for transformation in the different regions of the world interacted and influenced each other.
Fanon’s text is published in the mid twentieth century when the religious world was being transformed with the birth of liberation theology. In the 1970s, the oppressed classes of Latin America united together to reinterpret the role of the Church and Christian theology to incorporate the ideas of revolution and class struggle. Liberation theology purported to strengthen the struggle of the marginalized by encouraging the ideas of liberation and emancipation – political, social and economic – and proposing emancipatory programs that tried to combine Marxist ideas of revolution with biblical theology. It was around the same time that liberation theologies were being developed in other parts of the world as well – liberation theology of the blacks in United States of America and South Africa, Palestinian liberation theology, and liberation theology of Dalits in India.
A couple of years after the publication of this book, deeply inspired by Fanon, Paulo Freire published his revolutionary work, ‘Pedagogy of the oppressed’ in 1968. In this book, Friere also presented us with a vision of a radically transformed and humanized world. He exhorts us to not submit to the violently dehumanizing order around us and emphasized that vision of a humanized world must emerge from the struggles of the oppressed, from the margins and the third world. Following the lead of Fanon, Freire urged revolutionary leaders to not think ‘without’ the people or ‘for’ the people, but only ‘with’ the people and thereby acknowledging the right of people to think for themselves.
Fanon’s work is deeply moving because it challenges the readers to cope with brutal honesty and unapologetic directness. It gives us an account of the sociological realities of militarized colonies, which are starkly similar to the realities of the present day military occupations. He throws light on how with the omnipresence of armed men in boots, rifle butts and napalm, violence penetrates into each and every aspect of the lives of the colonized, tearing the fabric of their societies apart. The text is a must read for the members from the colonizing communities because it explains how they benefit out of colonization of the native and are thereby responsible for the oppression of the native.
A career in psychiatry made it possible for Fanon to combine his analysis of political, social and cultural implications of the colonial situation with psychological effects of the colonial situation on the colonizer and the colonized. Thus, Fanon laid the foundation of psychopathology of colonialism.
This text is crucial to develop a sociological and psychological understanding of anti-colonial and post-colonial struggles for liberation. It presents us with an opportunity to look at the colonial world through the lens of the colonized engaging in an armed struggle, giving us a glimpse of the realities of the conflict and war zones of the present day – Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan or Kashmir etc. It enables us to place the present day struggles for social and cultural struggles for self-determination in a historical and material context. Read Fanon to get a glimpse of the powerful spirit driving struggles for justice and liberation.
Author is a law graduate and is doing her post graduation from Ambedkar University, Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not necessarily reflect the position or editorial policy of Oracle Opinions.